Denby Fawcett: Mauna Loa Is A Beacon For Explorers Even Without Lava Flows - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views.

Mauna Loa, the Long Mountain, has obsessed explorers, hikers and scientific expeditioners for centuries.

The allure of the monolith continues today. “I am fascinated by Mauna Loa. I have always been,” says Jessica Ferracane, spokeswoman for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

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Mauna Loa is the colossus of Hawaii’s volcanoes, the king or the queen by its sheer size. When people of an adventurous nature see the massive mountain, it calls out to them. They want to climb it.

Ferracane says the admiration for Mauna Loa grows when you drill down on its enormity as the largest active volcano on the planet. The U.S. Geological Survey says the total relief of Mauna Loa, from its true base on the ocean floor to its summit, is about 56,000 feet making it much higher than Mount Everest.

It covers 51% of Hawaii island. It is so hulking and heavy it depresses the ocean floor beneath its weight.

Today, with the focus on Mauna Loa’s current eruption — particularly the nightly spectacle of the orange lava fountains and the breathless TV reporters tracing the progress of the lava as it creeps toward Saddle Road — it’s easy to lose sight of the mountain itself.

Although the two trails to its summit are closed because of the eruption, it is interesting to think about Mauna Loa’s storied past as a destination for scientific expeditions and adventure.

The volcano has seen its share of death and injury even when the caldera is not erupting.

It’s the first time in almost four decades that Mauna Loa has erupted, but the massive mountain always inspires awe. This aerial photo shows gas and steam emitted from the fissures. U.S. Geological Survey/2022

But it has also prompted exhilarating memories in any person lucky enough to have climbed to the top. I count myself in that group. Eight of us, led by geologist Glenn Bauer, made the long slog to Mauna Loa’s summit in August 1983.

The uphill grind to the top of Mauna Loa is the closest hike you will find in sea level Hawaii to ascending the Alps or the Himalayas. It’s not a technical climb but rather a grueling 18-mile trek over crunching lava with a steady elevation gain from 7,000 to nearly 14,000 feet.

A Lava Obstacle Course

Aiming for the summit caldera is not to be approached lightly. To prepare for our trip I put on boots and hiking gear to regularly walk from my house 4 miles around the outside of Diamond Head, a frame pack on my back weighed down with bags of kitty litter, my French and Spanish dictionaries, a plastic gallon jug filled with water and a large sack of rice. As I lugged around the weight in the hot Honolulu sun, I hoped not to run into any friends to have to explain.

Training was good practice for the pack I would carry up the mountain that weighed 30 pounds despite last minute measures to lighten up including dumping my deodorant, a few extra changes of clothes and a summer sausage I planned to eat on the trail.

Denby Fawcett Mauna Loa volcano hike
Denby Fawcett, right, stands near the summit caldera with Vernon Knight during a 1983 hike. Courtesy: Denby Fawcett/1983

Getting to the top of Mauna Loa is difficult for a number of reasons, primarily the altitude gain but also the rough tear-your-boots-to-shreds jagged lava course, the lack of shade and the bitter cold at the top, also the fog in the midst of which climbers can become badly confused and wander off the trail.

For climbers in the winter there is the possibility of disorientation by snow blindness, frequent blizzard conditions and even death by hypothermia.

In his journal, Scottish botanist David Douglas, for whom the Douglas fir is named, described his ascent to the top of Mauna Loa in deep snow, January, 1834:

“Walking was rendered dangerous by the multitude of fissures … everywhere our progress was exceedingly laborious and fatiguing. As we continued to ascend, the cold and fatigue disheartened the islanders, who required all the encouragement I could give to induce them to proceed.”

Only one of the four Hawaiian men in his group made it to the top with Douglas. The three others, too cold to continue, took refuge in a nearby cave, huddling together for warmth.

“The descent was even more fatiguing, distressing and dangerous than the ascent has proved and required great caution for us to escape unhurt; for the natives benumbed with cold could not walk fast. Darkness came on too quickly.”

To read the journals of the Mauna Loa’s early explorers offers the chance to vicariously join company with Douglas and people such as Navy Lt. Charles Wilkes.

Wilkes, commander of the U.S. Exploring Expedition of the Pacific, set out for the snowy summit of Mauna Loa in December 1840. His massive expedition was the first U.S. effort to survey the South Pacific to prepare detailed maps for the U.S. shipping industry.

Wilkes was stunned when he discovered most of the 250 Native Hawaiians hired for the expedition as porters were preparing to make the climb clad only in malos and tapa cloth shawls with ti-leaf sandals for footwear.

He requisitioned rawhide slippers for them. But even those wore out leaving the Hawaiians’ feet bloody and raw. As they neared the top with the temperature sometimes dipping below 20 degrees, many of the porters deserted.

‘Impenetrable Thickets’

Another notable explorer was Isabella Bird, the 40-year-old English traveler who made it to the caldera of an erupting Mauna Loa in 1873 on a difficult horseback journey that she wrote left the horses’ hooves drenched in blood.

Bird was frustrated that the water for her tea would not boil at the summit. “In spite of my objection to stimulants and in defiance of the law against giving liquor to natives, I made a great tin of brandy toddy, of which all partook, along with tinned salmon and doughnuts,” she wrote.

The first foreigner to attempt to summit Mauna Loa didn’t get even close to the top. He was John Ledyard, a young marine corporal in the crew of Capt. James Cook’s ship the Resolution anchored off Kealakekua Bay in January, 1779.

Ledyard was intrigued by the snow-capped volcano. Ledyard and three companions from Capt. Cook’s expedition set off from the ship with a group of Hawaiians who were supposed to serve as their porters but who refused to carry any of their gear.

Ledyard and his fellow climbers each carried a bottle of brandy and a woolen blanket. They purchased a pig along the way to eat. Their goal was to climb straight to the summit from Kealakekua.

After three days of struggling through rain, mud and cold in breadfruit forests above Kona, and what they called “impenetrable thickets,” they gave up, without even making it out of the upper edge of the forest.

“We had been unused to walking and especially to carrying such loads as we had. Our Indian companions (as they called Hawaiians) were much more fatigued than we were, though they has nothing to carry,” wrote Ledyard.

Archibald Menzies was the first European to successfully summit Mauna Loa in February 1794. Menzies, a respected Scottish botanist, had come to Hawaii as part of the expedition of the English Capt. George Vancouver.

Royal Advice

Menzies had made two unsuccessful attempts to get to the top of Mauna Loa by climbing its western flank before he decided to ask Kamehameha I for advice.

Kamehameha told him the best route was along the southern flank. The Hawaiian king loaned Menzies a canoe to get to the route and provided him with a knowledgeable chief to guide him and to help him procure porters.

It is amazing Menzies succeeded considering his meager provisions of biscuits from Vancouver’s ship, a bottle of rum, chocolate and a few coconuts.

Writing in his journal about his bone-numbing fatigue, Menzies recalled: “We managed to boil the chocolate in a tin pot over a small fire we made out of our walking sticks, and each had his share of it warm with a small quantity of rum in it, before we went to bed.”

It seems everyone who has headed for the Mauna Loa summit carries a bottle of brandy or rum with them. We were no different.

The most difficult part of the our hike was after we left the Red Hill cabin at 10,000 feet and headed straight up the side of Mauna Loa to reach the caldera summit at 13,250 feet.

Each of us was burdened with the additional 8 pounds of weight from containers of water we had to carry in our backpacks.

That was necessary because descending hikers, stopping off at Red Hill the day before warned us the water tank at the summit was dry.

Mauna Loa summit cabin volcano
This cabin at the summit of Mauna Loa offers shelter for those who make the trek to the top. National Park Service/2019

The extra water sloshing around in our packs did not stop us from finding a way to tuck in a small plastic container filled with Jack Daniels and a full bottle of Lemon Hart 151 Rum.

After 11 hours climbing in the blazing sun that day, we reached the top, staggering out of breath to the summit cabin. We drank the rum mixed with cold water and fresh lime slices to celebrate followed by many bowls of warming miso soup.

At sunset, I walked from the cabin to the outhouse. It is perched on the edge of the caldera and has no door to block the view.

As I sat there in overpowering silence, watching the steaming vents in the caldera’s floor with the sky changing from orange to pink to magenta, I felt exhilarated.

I picked my way back over the crunching lava to my bunk in the cabin, thinking as I walked, I have just been to the finest bathroom in the Pacific. “The loo with the view,” as Ferracane calls it.

Mauna Loa will always be there for us, causing excitement with its eruptions and evoking deep memories of the past.

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views.

Latest Comments (0)

Another fascinating story, Denby.I am in awe of your subjects and writing.Mahalo, Cheryl

CSoon · 11 months ago

Great article. Sounds like a grueling hike . Curious, would there have been more winter snow pack back in the 1700 - 1800 's , or years with more snow etc? With global warming, is there less snow now? Thanks! :)

Chris · 1 year ago

Thanks for the great story, Denby. For so many years, I planned on doing Mauna Loa. I wanted to go up the Mauna Loa Trail and perhaps down the older Ainapo Trail into Kapapala. Once the 2018 eruption in Puna happened and there was talk of increased seismic activity on Mauna Loa, I told myself I had to get moving or I may lose my chance. But, I just couldn't make it happen. And sure enough, Mauna Loa started erupting. It saddens me that I probably won't be able to get up there anytime soon. Judging by the maps, it looks like some of the flow went right over the Mauna Loa trail in addition to covering the Observatory road.

ndhwn · 1 year ago

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